Four years ago, on 10 March 2011, aged 49, my life irrevocably changed when I experienced a spontaneous coronary artery dissection.
It started out as a fairly normal day, pulling up a few weeds in the garden. Steve my husband was at work and I was enjoying pottering about on my own. I’d just pulled out some mint that had strayed out of the border when I felt a weird sensation of pressure on my chest and tingling down my arms. ‘That doesn’t feel right’ I thought, and a wave of nausea washed over me. There was no pain so I wasn’t actually panicking, but I thought it was so unusual, I’d take my BP. The systolic was over 200 so I thought ‘better call the GP’. As I was on the phone, I experienced a feeling of dread which I guess was my gut instinct telling me this was serious, so when my GP said she was calling me an ambulance I wasn’t really surprised. I called Steve in tears and he said he was on his way home, a 40 minute drive.
I should say at this stage I was fairly sure it was a heart attack for two reasons.
1. My mum, who had died seven months earlier, was a nurse on coronary care in the Wrexham Maelor for 40 odd years, so as kids, we had been told stories of heart attacks, what happened, how people survived and that people of all ages were affected. My mum reckoned she could ‘smell’ a heart attack with all her years of experience. Where was she now when I needed her?
2. I’d read an article in Woman & Home a week earlier about a woman, Elaine Kingett, who said her heart attack felt like a small dog sitting on her chest. Well, so did mine!
Anyway, the ambulance arrived swiftly and the first thing I did was burst into tears. The very kind paramedic said she thought I was probably having a panic attack, but having experienced these for years, I knew this was different. An ECG performed at home was normal but they took me in as a precaution. By this time, my panicking husband had arrived home!
My next ECG in A&E was ‘inconclusive’ and they sent off my bloods for analysis. A rather rude young doctor was advising me it was probably indigestion and that I should sleep with raised pillows! I never get indigestion I told him. They kept asking me about pain on a scale of one to ten and I would say three because it really wasn’t pain, just pressure. I did get the impression that no-one was taking me seriously.
However, things hotted up a bit when my BP and pulse rate suddenly shot through the roof and my husband, who was sitting on a chair at the end of the bed and watching my monitors, fainted! A new ECG showed an anomaly and the senior nurse was straight on the phone to Liverpool Heart & Chest Hospital. Someone put the resuscitation paddles on my chest and gave me some morphine.
The ambulance ride is a bit of a blur. Apparently we got to Liverpool in about 25 minutes, lights and sirens all the way. My husband tells me it was a helluva ride!
I was greeted at the door with a bed, transferred onto it and taken straight to the cath lab. I do remember the procedure in parts: my heart on the monitors in technicolour detail, the huge scanners around my neck and chest area, the lovely nurses who chatted to me all the way through and squeezed my toes to check I was OK. At one stage I drifted off somewhere and only came back to reality when I realised someone was shouting at me to cough. I heard them say ‘VF’ so I guess I had been experiencing ventricular fibrillation. I remember the surgeon calling in a colleague for a second opinion as to whether they should put a stent in as the arteries were clear, except for the one blockage, and they decided to go ahead and do it.
Back on the ward, I was happy and smiling (still high!) and covered in tubes! Steve said I was so smiley you wouldn’t think anything had happened. He, poor thing, had been waiting alone, with a leaflet on stenting, for about an hour and a half, not knowing what on earth was going on. I think it was worse for him on the actual day than it was for me.
A couple of hours later, one of the medical staff came to me with a print out showing the blockage and was able to confirm that no lasting damage had been done, but the heart attack was unexplained. My arteries were clear. He asked me if I smoked (no, never) drank (yes) exercised (yes) drugs (never). Was I stressed? (yes, I was grieving for my mum and had just resigned from a job that I hated with a passion). It was suggested I may have a hole in the heart so I underwent another procedure where they pumped air into my heart to see what happened, but that showed up nothing. In fact the words ‘spontaneous coronary artery dissection’ were not mentioned for a further six months!
I was happy as Larry for the first few hours, even watched Benidorm on TV, but I woke up at 5 a.m. next morning thinking ‘holy shit I’ve had a heart attack!’ and shook like a leaf under the covers until a kind nurse made me a cup of tea and chatted with me to calm me down.
Four years on, life is so different. If this hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be blogging that’s for sure. Nor would I be getting through my wish list of places to go and things to see with quite such enthusiasm and urgency. It this has taught me one thing, it’s that life has to be lived in the moment and that I’m through with waiting for things to happen.
SCAD is now becoming more recognised as a leading cause of heart attack in young women and a study has been commissioned to look into why it happens. Let’s hope we find some answers!